The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet
Niles, John D.
Western Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 1/2, Models of Performance in Oral Epic, Ballad, and Song (Winter – Spring, 2003), pp. 7-61
Ten years ago Roberta Frank published an article, based on her Toller Lecture for 1992, titled ‘”TheSearch for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet” (Frank 1993). With caustic wit as well as impeccable scholarship, she there points out the extent to which modern-day conceptions of Old English poets and poetry have been shaped by the passion for bardic verse that swept through Europe during the later decades of the eigh- teenth century. For a while, it seems, thanks to the influence of Thomas Percy and the vogue ofJames MacPherson’s spurious Ossian, no ancient poetry wasjudged worthy of acclaim unless it could be ascribed to the wild, natural art of minstrels.
Frank also points out that the search for the oral poet began well before the era of Percy and MacPherson. During the twelfth century, the writers of Latin chronicles seemed fascinated by the idea that there had been bards in Anglo-Saxon England. It is the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury (ca. 1095-ca. 1143), for example, whom we can thank for the story that Aldhelm, the late seventh-century co-founder of the monastery at Malmesburyand the firstmajorfigure of Anglo-Latin letters, used to accost church-goers at a bridge so as to entice them to listen to moral sermons.